Victor V-40001 – Vaughan Happy Two – 1928

The following record is something a bit different from the run-of-the-mill—by any measure.  But if it’s that so-called “old, weird America” you’re looking for, as Greil Marcus put it, then you’ll hardly find much weirder and older than this.

The musical selections on these two sides are performed by the Vaughan Happy Two, a duo related to the Vaughan Quartet, a popular and prolific sacred singing group, though its members did not sing with the quartet.  The Vaughan Quartet, Happy Two, and several other associated groups were sponsored by the James D. Vaughan Music Company of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee a successful publisher of sacred music, the namesake founder of which also established the Vaughan School of Music in 1911 and radio station WOAN in 1922.  Vaughan’s Quartet first recorded in 1921 and did so extensively thereafter.  Many of their recordings were issued on Vaughan’s own private record label, as well as Victor and Paramount.  The Vaughan Happy Two—Arthur B. Sebren and Cullie G. Wilson—was formed in 1925, and made their first records in 1928, which they followed up with five more sessions between then and 1930, making for a total of four sessions for the Vaughan label and two for Victor, twenty-two sides in all.  Their recorded repertoire included both sacred and secular songs, and their traveling stage act reportedly extended to monologues and musical saw.  The recordings they left behind, at least the ones on this disc, are rather reminiscent of the parlor music from so long ago, an old fashioned style that unsurprisingly proved popular with many rural listeners in the 1920s, longing for simpler times as the modern world rapidly advanced around them.

Victor V-40001 was recorded on October 20, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia.  It is the second release in Victor’s “Native American Melodies” series, as they dubbed their V-40000 rural series prior to May of 1930.  It was probably released early in 1929, and was cut from the catalog in 1930.  The Vaughan Happy Two are tenor C.G. Wilson and baritone A.B. Sebren, accompanied on piano by M.B. Stroud.

They first sing “A Married Man in Trouble”, a song composed by prolific gospel songwriter James Rowe and Vaughan Quartet member Adger M. Pace. Though called the “Happy Two”, this song is quite the opposite (“how sad, how sad”), though indeed it is delivered in good humor.

A Married Man in Trouble, recorded October 20, 1928 by Vaughan Happy Two.

On the “B” side, Sebren and Wilson sing “Chicken”, which, while credited to J. Porter Thomason and Charles W. Vaughan, is an adaptation of the old minstrel song “Chicken Don’t Roost Too High for Me”, performed by artists as diverse as Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner and the Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane, as “Chicken You Can Roost Behind the Moon”).

Chicken, recorded October 20, 1928 by Vaughan Happy Two.

Bluebird B-8621 – Riley Puckett – 1940

Riley Puckett in the late 1930s or early 1940s. His most frequently published portrait.

With euphonious singing voice, enticing guitar playing, and a wide and diverse repertoire ranging from old folk ballads to modern pop songs, Riley Puckett, dubbed the “Bald Mountain Caruso” or sometimes “King of the Hillbillies” (an honorific contested by Uncle Dave Macon), was one of the most popular and prolific rural musicians of the pre-World War II era, both solo and as a member of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.

George Riley Puckett was born either in Alpharetta, Georgia or thrity-five miles away in Dallas on May 7, 1894.  He was blinded in infancy by a treatment for an eye infection gone awry, though those who knew him suggested that he could still tell light from dark.  Subsequently, he attended the Georgia School for the Blind in Macon, at which Blind Willie McTell would later enroll.  Taking up the banjo at twelve and later switching to guitar, Puckett soon made a name for himself at fiddler’s conventions with his playing and singing, his beautiful voice and exceptional range earning him the nickname the “Bald Mountain Caruso”.  He was also noted for his unique method of guitar playing, relying on dynamic runs.  On September 28, 1922, Puckett made his radio debut with Clayton McMichen’s Home Town Band on Atlanta’s WSB.  In February of 1924, Riley Puckett and fiddle player Gid Tanner cut test recordings for Columbia, and in March they pair traveled to New York to record for the first time in two sessions.  His “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” has often been cited as the first “country” record to feature yodeling, a full three years before Jimmie Rodgers made his first records.  After those two sessions, boy did the floodgates open; from 1924 to 1931, Puckett recorded nearly two-hundred titles for Columbia, notwithstanding the eighty-five plus he made as a member of the Skillet Lickers, with hits like “My Carolina Home” cementing him as one of their best-selling artists in the Old Familiar Tunes series.  After a break from recording during the Great Depression, Riley made his triumphant return in 1934 when he signed with Bluebird, ultimately producing nearly another hundred titles, including perhaps his best known song “Ragged but Right”.  A 1937 side venture took him to Decca for a further twelve.  Riley also sang on radio stations all around the South and Midwest; by the end of the 1930s, he was singing on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee.  After ten sessions for Bluebird, he had his final record date on October 2, 1941 in Atlanta.  Riley Puckett died from blood poisoning, the result of an infected boil, on July 13, 1946.

Bluebird B-8621 was recorded on October 1, 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Riley Puckett is accompanied by his own guitar and an unknown woman mandolin player.  It was concurrently issued on Montgomery Ward M-8885.

First up, Riley sings one of my favorites, a song that got its start in Tin Pan Alley with Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins’ “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do” in 1922, which through some twists and turns and lyrical adjustments, found its way—perhaps by way of the medicine show circuit—into Southern folk and blues repertoires as “Nobody’s Business” or some variation on that, seeing recordings by Earl Johnson’s Dixie Entertainers in 1927, Mississippi John Hurt in 1928, and many others.  Riley himself recorded it three times, first on an unissued recording for Columbia in 1924, then twice more for Bluebird, in 1935 and—this one—in 1940.

Nobody’s Business, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.

On the flip, Puckett does his version of a popular big band hit of the day, Saxie Dowell’s “Playmates”—the melody of which was lifted from Charles L. Johnson’s 1904 intermezzo “Iola”—and gives a heck of a good delivery to boot.  Perhaps I just have my mind in the gutter, but with all the “climb up my apple tree, look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door,” this sure sounds like a lot of double entendre to me!

Playmates, recorded October 1, 1940 by Riley Puckett.

Columbia 14194-D – “Peg Leg” Howell – 1926

One of the great heroes of the country blues (one of R. Crumb’s Heroes of the Blues, at least) is Peg Leg Howell, a musician holding the great distinction of being among the earliest male country blues artists to make records.

Joshua Barnes Howell was born on a farm in Eatonton, Georgia on March 5, 1888, placing him in an older generation of blues songsters to record, alongside the likes of Lead Belly, Jim Jackson, and Henry Thomas.  He learned to play guitar when he was twenty-one, but continued to work on the farm until his disgruntled brother-in-law blew off his right leg with a shotgun (hence the nickname “Peg Leg”).  Thereafter, Howell found work in a fertilizer plant, and later began running bootleg liquor, which landed him in jail in 1925.  After he got out, an A&R man for Columbia Records heard him playing on Decatur Street in Atlanta, and he was invited to cut a record while they were in town.  He recorded a total of four sides on November 8, 1926, amounting to two records.  Howell returned to the Columbia microphone for a further seven sessions between April of 1927 and April of 1929 when the company made field trips to Atlanta, making for another eleven solo sides, eight with his “Gang” consisting of Howell with fiddler Eddie Anthony and guitarist Henry Williams, four with mandolin player Jim Hill, two with Anthony alone, and another two with another fiddler who may have been Ollie Griffin.  He probably also appeared on two additional sides accompanying Waymon “Sloppy” Henry on Okeh in August of ’28, and may have been the unidentified “Tampa Joe” to Eddie Anthony’s “Macon Ed” on another eight sides; if so, it would stretch Howell’s recording career another year into December of 1930.  Following his last record date, Howell continued to play around Atlanta, and went back to bootlegging.  Howell laid his guitar down in 1934 following the death of his friend and frequent musical collaborator Eddie Anthony, and he returned to bootlegging liquor.  In 1952, his other leg was lost to “sugar diabetes.”  Howell was rediscovered eleven years later by a trio of young blues aficionados and researchers—George Mitchell, Roger Brown, and Jack Boozer—who convinced him to make a few more recordings.  After a little practice to get himself back in playing condition, Howell recorded ten final sides for a Testament LP in 1964, including several “re-does” of his old 1920s recordings.  Peg Leg Howell died in Atlanta on August 11, 1966, at the age of seventy-eight.

Columbia 14194-D was recorded on November 8, 1926 in Atlanta, Georgia by “Peg Leg” Howell, accompanying himself on the guitar.  These are Peg Leg Howell’s first two recorded sides, and his second issued record.

First up, Peg Leg sings and plays in Spanish (open G) tuning on the classic “Coal Man Blues”, his first recorded side, and one of his best in my book.  This was one of the ten sides Howell re-recorded in his old age.

Coal Man Blues, recorded November 8, 1926 by “Peg Leg” Howell.

Next, Howell’s “Tishamingo Blues” bears an early utterance of those immortal words “I’m goin’ to Tishomingo to have my hambone boiled; these Atlanta women done let my hambone spoil,” that have come to pervade the blues vernacular from Cab Calloway to Milton Brown, albeit with “Tishomingo” changed to “Chicago” and “Cowtown”, respectively.  Note that while this song is almost entirely different from Spencer Williams’ 1917 “Tishomingo Blues”, it does recycle Williams’ “I’m going to Tishomingo; because I’m sad today” lyric.

Tishamingo Blues, recorded November 8, 1926 by “Peg Leg” Howell.

Columbia 14222-D – Barbecue Bob – 1927

Up there with Blind Lemon Jefferson in the pantheon of 1920s blues music stands Robert Hicks, better known as Barbecue Bob, an Atlanta native that found fame in the late 1920s as one of the top “race” stars for Columbia records.  Over the course of his short recording career, Hicks waxed sixty-eight sides.

Born September 11, 1902 in Walnut Grove, Georgia, Robert Hicks and his brother Charlie, along with Curley Weaver, learned to play guitar from Weaver’s mother.  While working as a pitmaster at an Atlanta barbecue joint, Hicks was discovered by Columbia records talent scout Dan Hornsby (who also worked as a musician and is known for his association with Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.)  Taking his recording name from his work, he made his first recording in March 1927, titled “Barbecue Blues”, which may have been named by the Columbia staff to fit his gimmick, as the lyrics make no reference to barbecue in any way.  Hicks went on to record many more sides between then and December 1930, both solo and as part of Georgia Cotton Pickers.  Robert Hicks died from tuberculosis and pneumonia on October 21, 1931.

Columbia 14222-D was recorded June 15, 1927 in New York City by Barbecue Bob, accompanied by his own twelve-string guitar.  The DAHR says that both takes 1 and 2 of both sides were issued, these are both first takes.  These are the first two sides from Barbecue Bob’s second recording session, and his second issues record.  This was probably one of the most successful country blues records of the 1920s.

It is said that the record of “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” was played at Hicks’ funeral in 1931.  The song makes reference to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States.  Beginning in April 1927, the floods caused widespread devastation in the Mississippi Delta, submerging more than 23,000 square miles and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.  The disaster and its widespread effects were chronicled in a number of songs of the era, including this one.  Hicks’ witty songwriting stands out in the line, “Mississippi shakin’, Lou’siana sinkin’, whole town’s a-ringin’, Robert Hicks is singing.”

Mississippi Heavy Water Blues, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Mississippi Heavy Water Blues, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Following a similar structure as the previous song, on “Mamma You Don’t Suit Me!”, Hicks sings of his gal, who drives a Willys-Knight and “doesn’t suit him like his other mama did.”

Mama You Don't Suit Me, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Mama You Don’t Suit Me, recorded June 15, 1927 by Barbecue Bob.

Updated with improved audio on October 14, 2017.

Columbia 15324-D – Riley Puckett – 1928

Blanche H. Bailey, the former Mrs. Riley Puckett, and Robert Puckett, at her home in Riverdale, GA. April 29, 1979. From the collection of Roy Robert Puckett, reproduced with permission.

Blanche H. Bailey, the former Mrs. Riley Puckett, and Robert Puckett, at her home in Riverdale, GA. April 29, 1979.
From the collection of Roy Robert Puckett, reproduced with permission.

May the seventh marks the 122nd anniversary of the birth of country music legend Riley Puckett.

George Riley Puckett was born May 7, 1894 in Dallas, Georgia.  He lost his sight as an infant after a doctor threw salt in his eyes as an ill-fated attempted treatment for an eye infection, and was educated at the Georgia School for the Blind in Macon, Georgia (same place where Blind Willie McTell was educated).  As an adult, Riley’s clear baritone singing voice earning him the title of the “Bald Mountain Caruso.”  As talented with a guitar as with his voice, he sang, yodeled, and played both solo and with the string bands of some of the finest fiddle players of their time, Gid Tanner and Clayton McMichen.  Puckett began playing on WSB in Atlanta during radio’s infancy in 1922, and recorded his first sides for Columbia in 1924, backed by Gid Tanner, starting with the same song that began his contemporary Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recording career, “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”.  In the 1920s, Puckett was one of Columbia’s most popular hillbilly artists, but parted ways with the company in 1931, and recorded for a number of other record labels thereafter, ultimately leaving him with a recorded output of several hundred sides, solo and as a sideman.  Puckett continued to record sporadically throughout the Great Depression and into the 1940s.  In 1946, he died of blood poisoning from an untreated boil.

The last time we heard from ol’ Riley Puckett was when we heard him sing one of his most popular and well remembered songs, Ragged but Right.  Now, here’s another of his records that is a little more obscure.

Columbia 15324-D was recorded October 22 and 23, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia by Riley Puckett.

Last time we heard Kelly Harrell’s “Away Out On the Mountain”, it was sung by Jimmie Rodgers.  As much as I like Jimmie, I think Riley does excellent work with this song too.

Away Out On the Mountain, recorded

Away Out On the Mountain, recorded October 22, 1928 by Riley Puckett.

Next up is “The Moonshiner’s Dream”, taking us back to the days of Prohibition.

The Moonshiner's Dream, recorded

The Moonshiner’s Dream, recorded October 23, 1928 by Riley Puckett.